The New Jersey Youth Symphony, led by Helen H. Cha-Pyo, will honor Black History Month with a concert featuring the works of African American composers Florence Price and Omar Thomas, as well as the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, Feb. 4 at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton.
The concert, titled “Of Our New Day Begun — Celebrating Black History Month,” “is very important to us as a celebration of Black History Month and of Black excellence,” says Cha-Pyo. “I wanted it to be very poignant in terms of what we’re doing as an organization and what we’re communicating to our students about its significance.”
Cha-Pyo is the artistic director of Wharton Arts, New Jersey’s largest independent performing arts education organization. The nonprofit — which has sites in Berkeley Heights, New Providence and Paterson — draws 2000 students from 12 different counties, and the New Jersey Youth Symphony is one of its core programs. The others are its Performing Arts School, the Paterson Music Project and the New Jersey Youth Chorus.
The concert’s cornerstone will be Price’s Juba Dance from her “Symphony No. 1,” composed in 1932. Price’s first three symphonies included a short Juba dance in the third movement named after a traditional dance created by enslaved African people on the Southern American plantations during the 19th century, marked by rhythmic stomping and clapping.
Cha-Pyo approached Newark School of the Arts choreographer Maurice Chestnut to design the choreography. He infused his signature tap style into Price’s African-American folk-inspired rhythms.
“I showed Maurice a couple examples that were readily available on YouTube that some major symphony orchestras had done with dancers,” Cha-Pyo says. “He came right back and said, ‘I don’t want to look back, Helen. I want our youth to look forward! I want to do a fancy tap dance.’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s just so amazing!’
“I went to their rehearsal in Newark last Saturday and was misty-eyed. There are such intricate rhythms going on that kind of echo the African drums in the score, and because the students are tap dancing, they’re doing it with their feet. At one point he turned to his dancers and said, ‘Don’t think of this as dance. Think of this as sound.’ So I closed my eyes and all I could hear were their inner rhythms — the intricate subdivisions of those rhythms and how it all fits into the folkish melodies.”
George Marriner Maull, who founded NJYS in 1979 and is the artistic director of The Discovery Orchestra, will take the stage to demystify Price’s piece.
“He’s going to teach the audience what to listen for, what to notice, how Price put this piece together with all its intricate rhythms and how she structures this folk music as a symphonic piece,” Cha-Pyo says. “We hope the audience’s experience with this Juba dance is very different, and they’ll have an in-depth understanding rather than a quick one-time hearing of it.”
The concert’s title references Thomas’ “Of Our New Day Begun,” which memorializes the nine worshippers of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., who were murdered in 2015 in a hate crime.
“It’s an intense and incredibly powerful piece,” Cha-Pyo says. “It was written as a response to that massacre and dedicated to those nine lives lost. As an orchestra, we’re really talking about that and how we still struggle with racial injustice and racism. And we’re keeping with the work’s really positive message of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ knowing that in that darkness of the human reality, there’s still a sprouting of hope. We really cannot let that go, because then what’s there to live for?”
The Brooklyn-born composer’s piece was inspired by James and John Johnson’s Negro National Anthem hymn, with musical themes rooted in blues harmonies and melodies. It incorporates stomping, singing and clapping, reminiscent of Black American church music traditions.
“The orchestra has to stomp while they sing and play, so the whole stage rumbles,” Cha-Pyo says. “Their voices and dissonance are like wailings through the winds in a high pitch that pierces through the stomping and the singing, and creates a kind of cacophony of what seems to be noise, but it’s really the wailings of our human spirit when something like this happens.”
The concert will close with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 from 1893, known as the New World Symphony. Dvořák interwove themes of Native American music and African-American spirituals that he learned through the Black composer Harry T. Burleigh.
“It’s one of the most beloved symphonies,” she says. “We wanted to really credit Dvořák’s inspiration, as he did himself, to the African American spirituals. I just wanted to bring it back full circle: how out of the angst of the human experience, inspiration never dies away if you keep that hope alive. It may not come to fruition in our lifetime, but it doesn’t mean we stop marching. It doesn’t mean we stop hoping or fighting or speaking up.”
Cha-Pyo joined Wharton Arts in 2018, and last year her contract was extended through the 2026-27 season.
“The vision I bring to any youth or performing arts organization is a sense of the African tribal concept of Ubuntu, which means ‘I am because you are,’ ” she says. “The orchestra couldn’t exist without having every one of us show up and, as the conductor, my job is meaningless if I don’t have an orchestra. We are so interconnected in that the orchestra is like a microcosm of larger life, a lab where we can really explore how best we can exist with each other, and thrive together and be harmonious.
“So with that audacious kind of philosophy, I wanted to bring diversity to this organization — diversity even in a simple sense of the meaning. Could the orchestra really look like the communities that we come from and where our students go to school? Could we be proactive in trying to make sure we’re giving these awesome opportunities to all of our students, and finding some equity and excellence in music education?”
Cha-Pyo is in her fifth season as principal conductor of the New Jersey Youth Symphony, the organization’s flagship orchestra. She sits at the top of a leadership team that provides 500 students in grades 3-12 with private lessons, group classes and high-level ensembles.
Fifteen tiered ensembles allow students to grow holistically as instrumentalists. “For example,” Cha-Pyo says, “we have three string orchestras and three full orchestras, so as a string player, you have six different levels from the moment you enter till you graduate.”
Students are encouraged to explore their full potential, whether it means becoming a section player or a principal. Everyone’s path is different, based on age, commitment and skill. “Not everybody’s going to go into conservatories and majoring in music,” Cha-Pyo says. “I’d say less than five percent of our graduating seniors go into music.
“However, I think they’re all profoundly changed throughout their lives, having done this art form of playing in an orchestra ensemble and learning what it means to be part of something that’s greater than just themselves. There’s a lot of life skills we’re teaching, like leadership training, being a good citizen and what it means to listen to each other. And we hope that’s sticking with them academically, and in their social lives.”
The Feb. 4 concert is the third in this season’s Signature Series, which Cha-Pyo founded last year. The theme is the confluence of music, dance and stories that reach beyond cultural boundaries.
“In any community around the world, we often celebrate with a blend of music, dance and conversation,” she says. “Take weddings and funerals, for example. When you think about the alpha and omega of life, there’s music, there’s dance and there’s lots of conversations where joys and challenges are shared. I wanted to tap into that universal human experience, no matter who we are, and bring dance, music and stories together.”
The first concert, in October, highlighted Korean arts and culture through Samgomu, a traditional Korean art form of dancing and drumming. It struck a personal note with Cha-Pyo, who was born in Seoul and immigrated to the United States when she was 12. She continued her studies at The Juilliard School and earned advanced degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Eastman School of Music.
The second concert, in December, spotlighted global holiday traditions through Pan-American music and tango dancers.
The series stemmed from an open dialog between Cha-Pyo and her older students about the impact of the curriculum and music they were performing in their respective communities. The goal was to stay true to the core mission and strategic plans of Wharton Arts, which prioritizes teamwork, interconnectedness and the transformative art of ensemble playing.
One goal of the Signature Series, Cha-Pyo says, “is really to reach beyond the families like the grandparents, uncles and aunts who typically come to youth orchestra concerts. We wanted to reach a larger audience because I think youth musicians have something to say. When they take the professional stage, they look and sound really exciting. You can sense all the possibility. You can almost see the future through what they can do.
“I see music as a tool with which we can just do amazing things, especially with young people. I don’t do music just for the sake of music. Music needs to be used in a positive way.”
The pandemic seasons were transformative, full of highs and lows. “Just like everyone globally who’s been through the pandemic, it really threw a curveball at all of us,” Cha-Pyo says. The orchestra adapted by purchasing an enormous tent for parking lot rehearsals and organizing free outdoor concerts for the local communities.
They also learned new technologies that became a vital part of the way they shared, produced and created music. For example, when lockdown hit, they were in the middle of preparing for their annual March Playathon, an all-day fundraising event at The Mills at Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth.
“We learned really quickly how to use Zoom and launched a day-long virtual festival where individual students would come on camera and play parts of the music that we love to play together, alone or with their siblings or parents, and we would all be watching from our living rooms on this little square screen,” Cha-Pyo says. “When I look back, we really had no idea how complicated this whole thing was — we just did it. The entire team came together and we experienced the unity of diversity in a whole new way.
“We had two years of being really resilient and making music with a whole bunch of video projects and virtual concerts. … We were tired as anything but we saw, as an organization, what’s possible when we can buy into the mission of creating these opportunities for our young people to tap into the essence of what’s driving them: the creativity.”
The New Jersey Youth Symphony performs at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. Visit whartonarts.myboxoffice.us/program/njys-signature-concert-1801.
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